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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ellen W. Gerber, February 18 and March 24, 1992. Interview C-0092. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Pushing for a clinical program at UNC School of Law in the mid-1970s

Gerber explains how her initial goal of establishing a law center for southern women was thwarted by her lack of practical experience coming out of law school. According to Gerber, students such as herself were largely limited by the lack of a clinical program at the University of North Carolina's law school. She discusses how she and other students lobbied for such a program during the mid-1970s. While it was later implemented, she explains that at the time UNC faculty was reluctant to act because they were trying to establish UNC as an intellectual law school, partly out of competition with Duke University.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ellen W. Gerber, February 18 and March 24, 1992. Interview C-0092. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
Did you have a definite goal in mind with Legal Aid, did you know exactly what you wanted to do?
ELLEN W. GERBER:
No. Actually I wanted to open what I had in mind as a southern women's law center, and I was going to emphasize women's law. I had this whole vision of it. That changed for a couple of reasons. One of which is, I think every law student must go through this; you suddenly realize there's no way in the world you know how to practice law. And you know you're coming out of law school and you're totally incompetent. And that was even worse for me. That was probably one of the biggest negatives of going back to school and having a second career. You have a certain standard of competence that you expect of yourself; you know you see yourself as a knowledgeable person who knows what to do about things, and suddenly you're an utter idiot and you can't find your way to the court house. You go to the court house to file a complaint and you realize you need two checks, not one check; one for the sheriff and one for the file. And you know, you have a bunch of papers you're carrying with you and you don't know where to take them, you don't know which ones to leave with the clerk and which ones to take back. You know it's one of those sort of stupid little things. But those kinds of trivial things bother me, and so I, I, you know, I tell new students as they come out now because I've had a lot of dealings with law students over the years in the clinic programs; you will not feel competent for at least two to three years, so don't worry about it. You know, you have to accept it, you're not going to. And so that's easier for a 24-year-old who has never had a job. It's much harder for an older person who really hates feeling stupid.
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
Were you involved in the clinic program at Carolina?
ELLEN W. GERBER:
I was involved in helping to get a clinic program —
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
Oh, I see.
ELLEN W. GERBER:
I was amongst the group of rebellious students that fought very hard to have one. We never had one when I was there, but we were certainly in the midst of that fight and in fact we ran into a lot of trouble with some of the faculty who were very opposed to one.
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
Why were they opposed?
ELLEN W. GERBER:
Well, they just didn't believe; the major reason was they didn't believe in a clinical program. Now you have to understand this was before Dean Broun, this was when Dean Byrd, and he was not in favor of it. And there was in those days a faculty alliance between Dean Byrd and Dan Dobbs, who was a fine torts professor and remedies professor and had been around a while, very intelligent.
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
He wrote the textbook.
ELLEN W. GERBER:
Also wrote the textbook and was a very intelligent man and very close to Dean Byrd because he too taught torts, and they were very close. And they just were opposed. On the, again on the grounds law school was the place where you learned and studied the scholarly aspects of the law. And not learned the practitioners' way of doing …
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
Getting back to the competency — it seems just like clinic would be the most obvious way to get that experience.
ELLEN W. GERBER:
Ahm, yes, it should have been. But they were worried. They had Duke in mind. And they were worried, that was the model of a law school. Oddly enough Duke had a clinic thing. But they were not the kind of clinic I'm talking about, they had a different sort, but they, they were looking to make a law school second to none intellectually. And they, to them the clinical part, and to them, to everybody, to this day clinical programs are the stepchild of a law school. I mean, you know, you're probably not aware of this because it wouldn't concern you, but you know most clinical faculty are not tenure track faculty. They're treated like second-rate faculty. And I recognize this because that's how physical educators are looked at by the university. Clinical experience is the practical side; that's not the real life of the university. And so that's where the opposition lies, and I understood that very well having come through the route I came. But so we lobbied to have students on this faculty curriculum and that was a second point of contention. People like Dan Dobbs did not appreciate having to sit down and negotiate with students over curriculum decisions; he thought those were faculty decisions to be made. Very traditional view that was out of step at the time. And you know, again we talking back in the mid-70s and the revolution in education comes slowly, and he just wasn't … he left, he left, and they always said he left because of our little group that fought for these …
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
He left while you were there?
ELLEN W. GERBER:
He left when I graduated, that year I graduated, and never came back.
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
What do you think helped bring it about?
ELLEN W. GERBER:
I left, I graduated in '77 and I think it was formed in either '78 or '79. The change in the law school, Ken Broun became the dean sometime about then and he was a big clinic supporter, and that was probably what brought on the whole change.